Last week, I described how the Balinese New Year (Nyepi) is a silent time of introspection, on which it is prohibited to leave your house. The only ones who have permission to be out in public are the village patrol (pecalung), who are there to ensure that everyone else follows the rules.
With all the motion on our trip, Giulia and I were actually happy to have a short period of enforced inactivity. As we lazed about the guest house grounds, we wondered what it was like out on the streets. It was hard to imagine that all public spaces of this loud, busy, bustling society were simply deserted. We really wanted to see what it was like. The irony is that if we went out, we would actually destroy the silence we sought to experience.
The same thing happens when you open the refrigerator door to verify if the light actually goes off (have you ever wondered?). There is actually no way of knowing for sure what actually goes on in there with the door closed. Maybe we’ve all been living with tiny fridge elves who sneak out and party when we’re not there.
Elves aside, there is a profound truth in pondering the epistemological questions surrounding the question of the refrigerator light. Household appliances, like everything in the world, contain unspoken wisdom waiting to be made explicit (next week on blenders…jk).
Pursued deep enough, the fridge light speaks to something fundamental about the way we exist with the universe: there is no ‘it’ without ‘us’, no observed without an observer. Subject an object are two sides of the same coin.
In the 1920’s, quantum physicists were forced to admit that they could not separate themselves from what they were trying to observe. The act of observation modifies what we seek to know. This is formulated in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: we cannot simultaneously know the position and the velocity of subatomic particles. The most precise measurements use light to observe particles, which affects what we want to see.
That we cannot separate ourselves out reality to occupy some privileged place of objective knowledge has long been known to Zen monks pondering what sounds of trees and hands clapping may (or may not) make.
Long before refrigerators or atom smashers, the western philosophical tradition also grappled with the limits of knowledge. I’m fascinated with the work of David Hume on this issue, who looked specifically at the question of causality. He argued that there is no rational way to justify our belief that one event causes another. Instead, we experience one event and then the next, and intuit the link between the two.
For instance, we see one billiard ball hit another and conclude that the first ball caused the other to move. But in reality, all we’ve seen is one ball moving at one moment and another one moving in the next. The mind creates an abstract idea- a cause- that might not necessarily be a feature of the natural world. Experience may suggest a connection between two events, but we impute the link between them.
Like the specific speed and position of a subatomic particle, or the silence on Bali’s streets during Nypei, it’s not possible to directly observe the cause.
Hume admits that going down this road of realizing you can’t really be certain about anything can be incredibly crippling and paralyzing. If we took skepticism to the extreme, we wouldn’t be able to function in the world. We have to live our lives assuming the connection between events, even if it’s not possible to rationally know it for sure. It’s useful to assume the sun will rise again, just as in all likelihood the fridge light actually goes out, just as Bali’s streets on Nyepi were probably empty.
We tend to forget the deeper implications of fridge lights and subatomic particles: there are some things in life that must remain mysterious, beyond the possibility for us to know. Instead of seeing this fundamental uncertainty about life as something that must be corrected or eventually overcome, we can embrace and dance with the mystery that we are ,so that we may be able “to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation,” as Bertrand Russell said.